01/08/2014 02:53 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

Good Ways to Deliver Bad News

I like getting good news at the start of the new year, and I assume you do, too. Good news is always nice, and it's even sweeter when its arrival appears as a positive omen for the months to come.

Given all these assumptions and expectations, you can understand why I was disappointed when bad news appeared in my "inbox" this past Saturday. The news itself wasn't major in the scheme of things, just a job opportunity that didn't materialize.

Nevertheless, I continued to feel upset and I began to wonder why. Sure my ego was bruised -- that's what an ego does. But apparently I didn't get the job because I lacked a particular (and previously unspecified) qualification, so really there wasn't anything to feel bruised about. So why did the unhappiness linger?

Finally, I understood. The news itself was unwelcome but understandable, however, the manner in which the news was delivered was unnecessarily unpleasant. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there really was something significant to be gained from this experience.

Rather than starting 2014 with a new job, I'm beginning the new year with more insight and sensitivity about how best to deliver bad news.

Here's my advice:

Be mindful of your timing. Send the notice on a working day, not at 9:30 p.m. on the last weekend of Christmas vacation. (But, if you do end up sending it out then, don't wish the recipient an "enjoyable holiday.")

Be honest about the decision. Honor the dignity of the applicant and explain precisely why they're getting unwelcome news. Don't obfuscate the truth because doing so denies the person the opportunity to understand and grow. However, be sure to tell the truth respectfully and without condescension.

Avoid defensiveness and resist the temptation to blame the applicant for the company's decision. In other words, don't come up with some lame excuse about how the applicant's CV arrived late (when it didn't) or how the application was incomplete (when it wasn't). Prospective employers make these excuses when they feel insecure about their decision to reject an application. If you don't want to hire someone, then have the confidence carry that decision yourself (rather than shift the weight onto the applicant in the effort to increase your own comfort).

Say what needs to be said, as clearly, briefly and compassionately as possible. Don't use a form letter full of disingenuous platitudes. And don't write a personal note that reads like a form letter. Just state the decision, offer a valid explanation, thank the applicant for their interest and sign off with sincerity.

Telling someone they didn't get a job is bad news, there's just no way to sugar coat it without causing nausea. Be mindful, and don't try to make yourself feel better by implying that the application would have been successful if only circumstances had been different. They weren't it, and it wasn't.

The next time I am tasked with delivering bad news, I want to heed my own advice. I will take care with my words as well as the manner in which they arrive. I will remember that how I communicate reflects on my skill and integrity as much as prospective employees' job applications display theirs.

After all, there's much more for an applicant to gain than simply getting the job, and, there's much more for an employer to lose than a future employee.